Every waking was the same, a probing of darkness, and a slow discovery of herself. Her hands, under the bed covers, explored her body, established its contours. First she got a body, a new body, and later a new name. Skinny or fat, she was still alone in the bed’s narrow, solitary dimensions. It was always like this. She woke new, with some part of her left behind, as if she had recovered from surgery.
She reached up and groped until she found the light switch. The illuminated room was about what she’d come to expect, an asceticism rooted in poverty both of spirit and means, the tin foil covering the window, the tattered sunset poster, and her white blouse and black skirt, her uniform, depending from a hanger, notched on a wall-driven nail. It must have been winter. She saw the space heater beside her bed and a jacket on a hook and saw how her breath made frost as she rose. The uniform, when she put it on, smelled faintly of fried foods. She saw a small spot of red on the front of the blouse. She couldn’t remember it. She hoped it was catsup and not blood.
She peeked out the window, around the edges of the tin foil. The setting sun, beyond the drizzle that gently tattooed the aluminum roof of her trailer, was blurred by clouds like something poorly erased. She stepped back and picked up a brush and worried her hair while using the bathroom mirror, checking her features whose changing contours never became coarse nor beautiful; just pretty enough not to be noticed. She never knew her name until she attached it to her blouse. She only existed to be perceived, a recessed figure in a story, a background Bedouin, going from each watering hole of words.
She found her nametag in a desk drawer. It read “Dot,” and while it was better than some she had—“Trixie” had particularly riled—it was still common. She hooked the pin to her blouse, grabbed a black, button-down sweater and black purse, and left the trailer.
Outside, small drops that dotted the windshield of the other cars parked next to other trailers, but no car belonged to her. She never needed one. Conceived as an ambulating character, she walked to work. The rain fell as tiny pinpricks and with a beaded languor in the lights, a fine-grained curtain through which ghosts passed. Sometimes the drops formed s-shapes, a silent hissing of drifting consonants. It didn’t surprise her that the world was taking on a graphical bias, that the streetlights formed parenthetical brackets, or the raindrops hung from telephone wires with a wobble like commas. Her word-shaped world had punctuation.
She moved downhill, toward the lights at the intersection, past the convenience store and the motel. The restaurant where she worked was attached to a casino. She saw it up ahead.
She entered the restaurant, and crossed to the kitchen where the cook in his toque hat and prison tattoo was not unique to her experience. Nor was the waitress named “Carol” who resembled a question mark with her thin body and rounded shoulders and painted eyebrows, arching now as if to ask, Who are you?
Dot surveyed the room. Somewhere around here someone was writing. Someone always was. Some writer wanting local color, atmosphere, the rub of the real to stain their fiction, and Dot, Dolly, Trixie, Billie (names she recalled pinning to her blouse) were part of that. Thinking of those names made Dot feel that parts of her were missing, that she’d been poorly sliced like a piece of pie, hacked into bits and put on different plates.
She felt the presence of a third-person narration, possibly omniscient. She noticed no tilting of things toward one particular consciousness, the way the light bent toward one scribbling coffee addict.
She wondered whose story it was. Perhaps it was the tired-looking couple who seemed terminally bored with each other while their children fussed. Or perhaps it was the young woman at the counter, the one with the nicked hands, thin eyebrows, and colored hair, or the skinny and intense-looking older woman who sat beside her, eyes round and black, hair spiked like exclamation points growing out of her skull. But where was the writer?
Carol touched her shoulder.
“Courage,” she said, “it’s raining and that makes them crazy.”
Maybe it was Dot who was crazy, for as she moved through the familiar tasks of taking orders, dispensing plates, and soothing tempers, she didn’t have the familiar impression of herself as something scrawled on paper in a lockstep of cursive letters.
Instead, she felt as if she were a verb moving through the minutes with the flow of a gerund: taking the order, delivering the food, and making change in a way that suggested that she was a blurred blob of being, a perpetual motion machine, dispensing food.
It was then she saw the woman writing at the restaurant’s counter, where it bent going toward the casino through an open passage. The woman sat at one of those counter seats obscured by the cash register and a slot machine, an inducement to the jangle of lost wages just down the hall. The woman was writing on a laptop.
“What is she doing?” Dot asked Carol.
“The Internet,” Carol said. “WiFi comes even to this godforsaken part of the country.”
Dot grabbed the steaming, fresh coffee pot and headed toward the woman. It was usually a man she found writing, but the type was still the same: glasses, dark hair swept back, the features bladed and intense, almost rat-like.
“More,” said the woman as Dot approached. She pushed the half-filled coffee cup forward.
Dot poured the coffee.
“What are you writing?” she asked, when the cup had been filled. It was a first. She had never spoken to the person writing. They had scared her. The scratching of graphite or ink on paper was an act of damning gravity, but somehow in the way this woman wrote on the portable keyboard suggested something else to Dot, a lightness.
The woman looked up. In the lens of her thick glasses Dot saw two of herself, identical halves that she felt fused into a whole, as if all the fractured selves that she had behind her—the Trixies and Dixies and Billies—were gathering together, at last.
“I’m writing something for the cloud,” the woman said.
“You know, saved to remote storage.”
“What is that?”
“I need to finish this scene.”
“Of course,” Dot said, taking a step back.
“What is that?” the woman asked. She pointed at Dot’s chest. “What is that on your blouse?”
“I think, catsup.”
“It looks like blood,” the woman said. “Say, that gives me an idea.”
The woman dipped her head and began to write.
Dot moved away. She felt different. She felt herself as a gathering mass, a presence, and as spirit too. Fragments of herself coalesced. She looked at her hand and wrist she noticed how the skin was textured now with veins and wrinkles and the lightest sprinkling of hair. She felt more real.
“Coffee please,” someone said.
That’s when she heard a shout from the slot machines. Someone had hit a jackpot, or so she thought. But when the gunmen burst into the room there were more shouts like that first one.
“All right!” bawled one of the men. Two of them had run into the restaurant. “Money on the tables!”
Dot was still holding the coffee pot, and as the man neared she made a motion of mindless reaction. She tossed the contents of the coffee pot. Scalding liquid splashed on the man’s face, and as he shouted he pulled the trigger of his gun.
Dot felt the bullet enter her as the man, blinded, was tackled by the security guard. Dot dropped the pot. It shattered as someone else tackled the second gunman and wrestled him to the ground.
Dot staggered over to where the woman still wrote, her hands on the keyboard.
“To the cloud,” she gasped. She felt the blood leaking from her. “I want to go to the cloud.”
The writer, who didn’t seemed to have heard Dot, or was even aware of what was happening in the room, pressed a button on her keyboard.
Dot didn’t want to die here, inside these four walls, which were all she had known of her existence. She managed to cross the room as the would-be burglars were being hogtied.
She ran out the front door, stepping into the night whose chill she felt sharply as little teeth, and she ran through the rain that slid into the pores of her skin. The rain fell as dashes and pound keys and asterisks, shattering to drops on impact.
She collapsed. “So this is pain!” she thought. She looked back to the restaurant where, through the glass walls, the patrons had fossilized into lumps, carbonized shapes.
It was then she rose without moving, and she felt the selves she had left behind rising with her, through the rain, all rising together to the cloud.